PR Advice for Nonprofits: Help! No One Wants to Talk About Us

Young woman interviewing senior man, close upWhile some nonprofit organizations — like American Cancer Society or Make-a-Wish — generate a lot of publicity and online chatter, many others struggle to spark meaningful conversations. As a society, we’re uncomfortable talking about certain topics (e.g., child molestation, addiction as a disease). Organizations focused on such causes face an uphill battle. It’s easy to see how the silent treatment can cause significant challenges: A lack of dialogue can result in  a lack of awareness … which can lead to a lack of funding and an inability to deliver the necessary services. It’s a vicious cycle.

Understanding that it’s a challenge isn’t enough though. A nonprofit communicator recently posed this question to me, “Our subject isn’t ‘warm and fuzzy,’ so it’s hard for us to get media attention or initiate online conversations. How can we communicate our message to community leaders (many of whom play a key role in funding decisions)?”

Some ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. Organize leadership briefings. Identify a high-profile, well-respected member in your community. Ask that person if he/she would be willing to help call a leadership briefing. (I’ve seen this work very well with politicians and long-time community members held in very high regard.) Serve a light breakfast and allow some time for mingling — making it worth attendees’ time — but keep the primary focus on the organization’s mission. Use this opportunity to explain the challenges, what you’re doing to spearhead the solution, and the positive community impact. Take questions. Whenever possible, reinforce your commitment to fiscal responsibility. Follow-up with attendees after the event to thank them for their time. Keep them in the loop when you achieve milestones and organizational successes. Use the briefings as an introduction, not a one-and-done.
  2. Humanize your subject matter. If your subject is uncomfortable, find a way to make it more comfortable. Is there a person who can share their story via a blog or video interviews? Can you focus on the outcomes your services provide, not the negatively that led to the need for your services? How about showcasing volunteers who are passionate about this cause? If they can explain why they believe in your mission, it might help others understand why they should, too.
  3. Be “pleasantly persistent” with your media outreach. I once had an TV assignment editor tell me I was “pleasantly persistent.” Nonprofits need to take this approach. Just because a TV station won’t run a full package on your organization doesn’t mean you should abandon your media efforts. Instead, think about it from a reporter’s perspective: Be a resource that fills a need for an actual news story. A quick example: I used to work with a domestic violence organization. It’s a topic people would prefer to sweep under the rug; however, the number of domestic violence murders was on the rise. Part of our strategy included contacting the media after every reported DV-murder to offer the organization as a resource to explain how violence escalates, what people can do to keep themselves safe, etc. Instead of pitching stories that solely focused on the organization, we identified opportunities to be a resource. Our persistence paid off: Once the media looked to the executive director as a resource, they were more open to receiving additional story pitches. This was a key tactic in a campaign that resulted in a 120% increase in in-kind donations. The point is you may to start small.
  4. Partner with other organizations. Collaboration can be key to breaking through the discussion barrier. If part of your mission aligns with another organization, seek opportunities to work together. Perhaps cross-post on each others blogs, package a pitch for the media, co-author an op-ed, co-host an educational event … you get my point.
  5. Number 5 is all yours. What advice would you offer a nonprofit that deals with a difficult-to-discuss subject matter?

Got a question that you’d like to be included in PRBC’s “Advice for Nonprofits” series? Email it to blog [at] gebencommunication.com.

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  • jolynnelyon

    I think another thing we can do is make sure we portray the attitudes we want to see in the media. If we don't want our topic viewed with sensationalism or pity, we need to avoid that angle, even if it might mean a quick story in the press.